'Women can compete at the same level as men' - the push for women in Esports

 (Stocksnap on Pixabay)
(Stocksnap on Pixabay)

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Esports is an industry on the rise.

In the UK alone, it’s already worth £1.5bn, with tournaments offering their victors millions of pounds in cash prizes and sponsorship deals – and with an ever-increasing number of those tournaments coming to London, that number is only set to increase.

And yet, when it comes to equality and representation, the numbers make for depressing reading. Despite 47 per cent of gamers being women, only five per cent ever make it to a professional level – a number that’s even more shocking considering that around 35 per cent of Esports fans are women too.

Gaming is still finding it hard to shake the stigma of being a boys’ only club, and for good reason. 40 per cent of female gamers have experienced abuse from male gamers while on multiplayers, and 28 per cent have experienced sexual harassment.

With numbers like that, no wonder women stay away from gaming – but that’s something an increasing number of organisations and gamers are trying to change.

One of those gamers is AnnaFUT, a 25-year-old content creator who specialises in football-related Esports: specifically FC24 and EAFC. And despite being new to the industry, she says that the lack of female representation at professional levels did surprise her when she joined professional Esports academy Guild’s team, twelve months ago.

AnnaFUT (Sky x Guild)
AnnaFUT (Sky x Guild)

“I don't know if that's due to a lack of tournaments, or people don't really know where to go or how to go about it and I think it's not really spoken about a lot,” she tells me.

One problem, she says, is that “you’ve got the big men’s competitions, and there’s no big female competitions, especially with EAFC, which I play.” That’s partly due to the people organising the tournaments – smaller businesses that don’t go out of their way to support women or foster female talent.

“I wouldn't say it's surprising because even in real life sport, women are never on par with men, even though there shouldn’t be that inequality, and I wasn’t hugely surprised by that, but it’s not like there’s physical differences.

“Women can compete at the same level as men so why are women not given the same opportunities, to compete at those higher levels?”

So things still aren’t great: but the upside is that academies and companies are starting to take notice.

“You start to [look] back and go ‘ok, why is that not progressing?’” Jasmine Skee says. As the CEO of Guild Esports, she’s heading up efforts to get more women into professional Esports.

“The biggest thing is probably the amount of abuse that they receive. Half of British women would experience online abuse [when gaming], you look south at Gen Z and it’s 75 per cent, and it’s usually of a sexual or violent nature.”

With Guild, she’s helped run a number of training programmes with Sky Broadband around tackling said abuse – and has also helped launch women-focussed gaming tournaments for massive franchises like Rocket League, sim-racing and a football e-series.

That includes a new womens-only Esports initiative, which comprises a series of tournaments across Racers and Soccer Eseries games, with a cash prize of £50,000 and the chance to win professional contracts up for grabs.

Another initiative helping to change the amount of women in gaming is EE’s PowerUp programme, which recently finished its first-ever year.

The programme, which ran in partnership with Esports team GIANTX, coached six aspiring female professional gamers in all things Esports, with the final prize being a spot on the GIANTX Valorant team – though the sessions have all been turned into educational videos and shared online too.

A big part of Power Up has been boosting the girls’ confidence – which is a big barrier to many entering the industry in the first place. “I think if you’ve got a pre-conceived idea of what’s happening, you won’t be taken seriously, you’re less likely to try it anyway,” says GK Barry, who’s been hosting the programme.

That included teaching them coping mechanisms for their mental health: “how to deal with it, how to put that into when you’re gaming, especially when they’re on there, and there are guys on there and they’re blocking you, how to deal with that without getting upset yourself.”

And things are getting better. “There were females playing [when I went professional] but I didn’t know of any competing,” says Ruby. She competes in Fortnite tournament under the name RubyPlays, and since going professional, has been ranked as the best Women’s Zero Build Player in the world.

“Now, there’s tournaments that are women-only tournaments, that Fortnite host and stuff to try and introduce women into competing and doing it amongst other women seems more friendly.”

This is paying off: “it builds them up to go compete in the actual Fortnite tournaments where anybody can play. So I know a few girls who have come out of nowhere and are insane at the game… and have started competing against the men and everybody and going crazy.”

Despite these encouraging signs, female representation is not yet an industry-wise concern. “Definitely not the whole industry, but I do think it’s definitely on more teams’ radars and brands are definitely wanting to support women within this space,” Skee says.

Guild Esports in Shoreditch (Supplied)
Guild Esports in Shoreditch (Supplied)

“You can definitely see more conversations happening, more opportunities, more women feeling like they’re part of the community and supporting each other.”

Take Anna, who’s been sharing gaming tips with her followers, or providing advice to people who have reached out.

“People are saying oh, ‘I've competed in this tournament because you mentioned it,’ and I'm just like, ‘that’s amazing,’” she says.

“What I'm doing is actually making a difference. I did it quite late on, so to help women at a younger age, where they can start it a lot earlier, I think it's really nice to see.”

Sky Broadband is empowering women to game competitively by kick-starting a series of women-only tournaments that offer professional contract opportunities – supporting Guild Esports’ mission to make the industry inclusive and equal for all 

The Power Up Programme, the first-ever VALORANT development programme for women in the UK, is the latest step in EE and GIANTX’s commitment to nurture the next generation of women in gaming